USDA UPSETS PORK INDUSTRY WITH DECISION TO TALK SETTLEMENT OF MAJOR LAWSUIT WITH HSUS
The pork industry is not exactly “hog-wild” about the USDA right now. This follows the Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s decision to side with Humane Society of the United States (HSUS) and enter into settlement talks with the animal rights group over a lawsuit regarding the sale of “Pork. The Other White Meat” trademarks. HSUS alleges that the sale of those trademarks using pork checkoff funds was an unlawful act. The pork checkoff, for those unfamiliar, is a system in which pork producers pay a small percentage of the value when pigs are sold and when pigs or pork products are brought into the U.S. In return, the funds collected through the pork checkoff benefit all pork producers by supporting them through research, promotion, and public education. HSUS claims that almost $60 million in funds had been indirectly used to benefit National Pork Producers Council (NPPC)’s lobbying efforts, as the group is the primary trade association of the entire U.S. pork industry. A district court which heard the initial proceedings in 2012 dismissed the case for lack of standing. However, last year the U.S. Court of Appeals reversed this ruling, allowing the lawsuit to resume. Since that time, the case has been ongoing and the NPPC/Pork Board have been fervently pursuing their defense. That is, until Secretary Vilsack allegedly took matters into his own hands. Since the USDA approved the initial contract on the sale of the trademark, it was roped into the lawsuit. The Department of Justice (DOJ) became involved once the lawsuit was filed against a government agency. [caption id="attachment_7284" align="aligncenter" width="594"] Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, a controversial figure in the ag industry[/caption] Many pork producers feel that Secretary Vilsack and the DOJ have not done their jobs by exhausting all legal options. Instead, they have announced that discussions with HSUS will take place in order to bring the lawsuit to a close. In front of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee last week, Secretary Vilsack claimed that the decision was made “in concert with the industry” and that “the industry has been involved in the discussion.” The industry says otherwise. According to top officials at the NPPC and the Pork Board, they had never agreed to settle and were completely shocked to learn that the USDA had made the decision to go that route. At the 2016 National Pork Industry Forum in Indianapolis, delegates expressed anger and frustration at being completely left out of the settlement discussion. These delegates, representing 46 states, voted to send an advisement to Tom Vilsack and the USDA to defend against the lawsuit using all legal options. This would not be the first time Secretary Vilsack has been accused of betraying agriculture’s best interests. His administration has been linked with HSUS in the past and appointed former HSUS employees to prominent positions in the USDA. One of the latest instances of that was when Michael Blackwell, a former director of veterinarian policy at HSUS, was named to the USDA Advisory Committee on Animal Health. Vilsack has also received financial support from HSUS. When his wife Christie Vilsack ran for Iowa’s U.S. Representative seat, her campaign received significant financial contributions from the animal rights organization. Additionally, the USDA has previously supported the Meatless Monday campaign, and Vilsack made waves in 2014 by supporting a second beef checkoff program which would’ve allowed him to stock the checkoff board with more HSUS affiliates if he so chose. All of this adds up to a strong distrust amongst the pork industry for Tom Vilsack’s tenure as USDA Chief. Therefore, the NPPC and Pork Board have committed to fighting the settlement and have put pressure on the USDA and DOJ to have their backs. It remains to be seen if Vilsack and the USDA will live up to their promises and protect agriculture from attacks. According to Pork Network, the USDA has until the end of June to decide if it will authorize a 2016 payment to NPPC, and meanwhile the industry hopes that Tom Vilsack will listen to them and continue fighting the HSUS lawsuit.